By Freda Yawson
Innovation is widely acknowledged as a vital ingredient to economic transformation. It drives increases in productivity through product generation and business process improvement, contributing to economic growth. Outside of a few fast growing economies and innovative startups, however, a majority of African countries are in need of agile and responsive frameworks that allow innovators to rapidly develop, test and deploy homegrown solutions. The global pandemic brought an additional layer of unprecedented challenges to the innovation ecosystem, though it also presented opportunities. Additionally, it highlighted the need for African governments to digitize, establish governance structures that support innovation, build local capacity in manufacturing, and increase innovation investments.
In many African countries, innovation ecosystems are nascent, with innovators limited by fundamental challenges in financing (e.g., for research and development); governance and regulatory structures (e.g., intellectual property, digitization, standards); and access to inputs, business support, mentorship, skills, and infrastructure (e.g., manufacturing and prototyping)1. Not surprising, Africa lags drastically behind the rest of the world in global research and development investments. African countries account for just 0.9%, compared to Asia (44%), North America (27%) and Europe (21%)2. And South Africa alone contributed 0.88%—nearly all of Africa’s share.
Despite these challenges, African economies have seen a rise in the development of innovative startups and an increase in tech hubs in the past few years3. A 2019 report by the Afrilabs Network and BriterBridges identified at least 643 hubs, a 104% increase from the 314 hubs identified in 20164. Countries including Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Rwanda, Tunisia, Morocco and Ghana, among others, are seeking to develop pipelines of innovative companies with support of new legislation like Startup Acts, digital innovation policies and programs, and capital from private investors and international development partners.
At the onset of the pandemic, many predicted catastrophic consequences for countries with weak health infrastructures, large informal sectors and already struggling economies, let alone innovation ecosystems. While the pandemic has disrupted supply chains for trade, manufacturing, health care and agriculture, it also awakened governments to the need to build capacity for homegrown solutions.
The first priority for many governments was to put in place measures to prevent the spread of the virus on the continent. Worldwide shortages in personal protective equipment and closed borders meant that governments relied not only on external aid but looked to their private sector, local makers and citizens for help. In Ghana, for example, the private sector rallied to produce masks, hand sanitizers, handwashing stations and pharmaceuticals. Makers produced 3D-printed face shields, touchless taps, and solar powered handwashing stations, while relying on WhatsApp groups and internet forums to share designs and resources with each other.
Incas Diagnostics, a local Ghanaian firm, developed a low-cost diagnostic test that detects antibodies in 20 minutes, allowing the government to cut testing time in half. With fewer than 2,000 working ventilators in public hospitals across Africa (compared to more than 170,000 in the United States), universities such as Academic City and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology began developing prototypes for ventilators using local materials, open source data and ingenuity. The University of Ghana’s Noguchi Institute sequenced the virus, providing researchers with vital information about its characteristics and behavior. The World Bank, GIZ, African Development Bank and other development partners hosted national and regional “hackathons” and offered funding for innovators who had COVID-19 related solutions.
But even as ecosystem actors rallied to collaborate, existing challenges to innovation were amplified. Three of the most notable include regulatory hurdles, digital infrastructure, and access to inputs.
Freda Yawson is a consultant and former Senior Programs Manager with the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET). She is also a social entrepreneur and co-founder of two organizations, Innovate Ghana, an annual design competition for students, and the African Health Innovation Center.
Policy experts and researchers from the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) and the Development and Economic Growth Research Programme (DEGRP), in partnership with ODI, explore the critical role of innovation in Africa’s recovery from COVID-19. Essays identify areas in which innovation can contribute to effective responses and offer high-level policy recommendations.